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Winds Keep Arizona Fire Growing Toward Record Size

June 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The so-called Wallow wildfire, now the size of Phoenix, continued to spread Wednesday across Eastern Arizona, forcing several communities to evacuate as thousands of firefighters continue battling the blaze. Jeffrey Brown gets an update from Jim Cross, a reporter for KTAR Radio in Phoenix.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the fires raging across Arizona.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The air near Springerville, Ariz., was a sickly yellow color today, thick with acrid smoke from the second largest fire in the state’s history.

The so-called Wallow blaze is now the size of Phoenix, and spreading fast. More than 600 square miles of ponderosa pine forest have burned since the fire burst to life on May 29, likely from an unattended campfire. High winds and high temperatures have fanned the flames. More than 2,500 firefighters from as far away as New York are struggling just to keep it away from small towns.

JIM WHITTINGTON, Southwest Area Fire Management: The priority right now are the communities, not just Eagar, but Alpine, and Nutrioso, and Greer, and — all the little communities that are out there. So, that’s our priority. You want to check the spread to the northeast, because it’s being driven by southwest winds. So, whatever we can do to do that, if we have to find an anchor point and pinch around the sides until we get to the head of the fire, that’s what we will do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the fire was just two miles outside Springerville and neighboring Eagar, where at least half the 4,000 residents had to flee.

The fire also forced evacuations and warnings in towns just across the border in New Mexico.

WOMAN: I’m only getting what’s important right now. It’s like panic attack. I already had to help my mom in Alpine pack up all her things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Officials also warned the Wallow fire could reach power transmission lines by Friday and force rolling blackouts across New Mexico and Texas.

To the south, two smaller wildfires are also burning in Arizona. So far, they have destroyed several cabins and outbuildings. But, to this point, there have been no injuries in any of the fires.

In the meantime, haze from all the smoke now stretches across Colorado and even as far east as Iowa.

And joining now from the town of Eagar, Ariz., is Jim Cross, a reporter for KTAR Radio in Phoenix. He’s been on the fire lines today.

Jim, what are the conditions firefighters are dealing with? What are you seeing there?

JIM CROSS, KTAR Radio: Well, we just got back from the front lines. We were taken out there on a tour — and about as bad as you can get, quite honestly.

You can — your eyes are burning. Your throat hurts. You’re plugged up. The wind is just howling out there. It’s blowing. It’s breezy here, but out there, just seven or eight miles back this way, it is just furious wind, big plumes going up, trees on the mountainside going up kind of like candles, Roman candles, you know, a lot of firefighters in there.

Once it comes down, if it comes down, out of this mountain area, it’s going to hit a flatland, a grassland, and they hope to maybe, if it gets down to that point, make their stand there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, I know they’re trying to keep it away from several towns. How exactly do they do that? What are they doing? What are they able to — able to do?

JIM CROSS: Well, they’re using a variety of methods. They’re using air tanker drops. They’re using burnouts in the area, cutting line with bulldozers, putting men in there to try to back-burn, so once fire reaches it, it will rob it of any fuel it has left to burn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Describe the area for us a little bit more, for those who don’t know. What are — what — what’s the terrain like?

JIM CROSS: It’s incredibly rugged. It’s some of Arizona’s most pristine country, some of the highest country.

It’s in a forest that is the largest ponderosa pine stand in the entire world, spanning New Mexico and Arizona, arguably the prettiest spot in the state and — at least it used to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of population, small populations in small towns spread throughout, or how — how does that work?

JIM CROSS: Small population, a lot of summer homes up in here, you know, several thousand permanent residents, but, you know, a majority — not a majority — certainly, many summer cabins, summer homes to people from the Phoenix and Tucson area.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is happening for these residents? How much — how much warning did they get for what might be coming? And how are they responding?

JIM CROSS: Residents all had about 12 to 24 hours of warning.

For the most part, they have responded well. There’s some anger up here that more wasn’t done to, you know, thin out the forest. You know, you’re hearing a lot of that. But, you know, for what they’re going through, they’re — they’re — honestly, they’re taking it pretty well. They don’t know if they will even have — have a home to go back to.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of those who are evacuating, are there places for them go?

JIM CROSS: There are places. There are a variety of shelters, two or three shelters around the area, you know, several miles away, but they do have a place to go. And they’re being taken care of. A lot of them are going with family, and relatives, friends, and so on. But, as far as we know, everybody is taken care of right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what — I know you have a lot of experience covering these things. What’s so hard in this case for the firefighters to get it, a fire like this, under control? What makes it so difficult?

JIM CROSS: The wind. It’s absolutely a wind-driven fire.

It — you know, strong winds, 40, 45 miles an hour for the past three or four days. It gets into these canyons and makes runs through these mountain areas. It’s almost impossible to stop. The fire is more than a week old. It’s zero contained. It’s, I would say, in excess now of 400,000 acres, second largest, certainly right now, in state history. And there’s every chance it could become the biggest fire the state has ever had.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said they’re hoping to make a stand at some point. Does that mean crucial next 24 hours? What — what are you looking at there?

JIM CROSS: Yes, today — today is absolutely critical.

If they can get through today’s wind, this is — this is where they make their line in the sand, so to speak. This is where they have to draw the line today. It’s critical. All the fire commanders believe that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jim Cross of KTAR, thanks so much.

JIM CROSS: Thank you.